MCA DiscoVision

TV Guide
November 25, 1978

The Videodiscs Are Coming
David Lachenbruch

What looks like a phonograph record, works on a laser beam, and shows Jaws? It's the videodisc, promising broad new options in TV entertainment. Within a month or two, you'll be able to buy a 12-inch disc that resembles a platinum LP, drop it in on a turntable, and watch Jaws in incredibly high-fidelity color on your own TV set (and listen on your stereo, if you wish). But only if you happen to be in Atlanta.

The videodisc age is dawning, four years behind schedule, courtesy of an alliance between the world's largest manufacturer of TV sets and one of America's top entertainment factories. After the videodisc marches through Georgia, it's scheduled to fan out through the country and to be available nationwide in 1980.

The Magnavision videodisc player will sell for $700, at least in Atlanta. You can choose from an ever-expanding catalogue of DiscoVision records, ranging from $15 or $16 for major movies (more for special attractions such as opera) down to as little as perhaps $2.95 or $3.95, with many see-and-hear discs priced lower per hour than conventional hear-only LPs. Movie discs will contain up to two hours of picture and sound (one hour per side). Others will hold a half-hour per side, and their moving pictures can be stopped and held, played in slow-motion, speeded up, or even shown backwards. Each such record can hold up to 54,000 still pictures per side, and any individual frame can be located rapidly by push button -- which gives the videodisc important potential as an educational tool. A slide show of all the world's great art masterpieces could be recorded on just one side. If you watched each slide for five seconds, starting Sunday at 8 P.M., without stopping to eat or sleep, it would be 11 o'clock Wednesday before you saw them all.

The parents of the videodisc are the global Netherlands-based electronics combine N.V. Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken (that jawbreaker means "light-bulb factory"), whose companies are estimated to produce some 6,000,000 color sets a year; and MCA Corporation, better known through its subsidiaries, Universal Pictures and Decca Records. In 1974, Philips purchased Magnavox as its American launching pad for the videodisc. For the time being. Philips is making the players, MCA the records, but each company plans to eventually build both.

The Magnavox player is a slick, futuristic-looking gadget slightly larger than a record player. It is simply attached to any TV set's antenna terminals. You merely place the shiny MCA DiscoVision record -- which glows like a rare gem with reflected rainbow colors -- on the turntable, close the lid, and push the start button. Then incredible magic begins. The turntable almost instantly revs up to 1800 rpm. A low-powered laser shoots its pinpoint beam to the disc. The disc reflects it back to a mirror-and-prism system where the beam is split in two. One of the beams conveys picture and sound information to the player's electronics, while the other keeps the pickup arm on the correct microscopic "track," which is spaced 65/1,000,000ths of an inch from its neighbors.

No pickup ever touches the disc -- only a beam of laser light -- so theoretically there's never any record wear. In addition to the color picture, the disc contains two high-fidelity sound tracks. The player can be connected to any stereo system to play back programs whose sound is recorded in stereo or you can play it through your TV sound system. A disc can have two separate sound tracks -- a switch on the player determines which one is heard. (MCA has made a demonstration disc of "Columbo" with the detective talking in both English and Japanese.)

This is the system Philips calls VLP (for Video Long Play). How MCA became involved is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of technology: it acquired a small electronics lab and invented the same disc system at almost exactly the same time as Philips. The two companies eventually agreed to merge their systems. For MCA it was a partnership with the world's largest manufacturer of consumer-electronics products. And Philips gained a zippy show-biz partner that owns the world's largest film library of 11,000 feature movies and is a leading producer of television shows and phonograph records.

MCA DiscoVision's initial catalogue for the Atlanta debut is scheduled to include at least 200 titles, of which about half will be feature films -- not only from Universal, but some Warner and probably some Disney movies, some pre-1948 Paramount oldies (MCA owns 700 of these) and selections from the prestigious American Film Theatre. Topping the premiere catalogue will be such films as National Lampoon's Animal House, Jaws, American Graffiti, and The Sting and American Film Theatre's The Man in the Glass Booth and Luther. All will probably be priced at around $15 each. At a somewhat lower price, there will be landmark made-for-TV movies, including the pilots for The Six Million Dollar Man and Kojak, plus Duel (the first movie directed by Steven Spielberg). Documentaries from TV, including Jacques Cousteau's undersea sagas and the British The World at War, are expected to be $9.95 per hour episode. Cooking instructions, educational shows, golf lessons with Gene Littler, tennis and swimming instructions and a film version of the book Total Fitness in 30 Minutes a Week will be tested at various prices. A typical 30-minute disc will probably sell for $5.95. Also scheduled for release are an Elton John concert, and ballet, including The Nutracker Suite and Swan Lake.

In the nostalgia department, there'll be some surprises. MCA owns all but one of the Marx Brothers features and will launch them on their videodisc career with Animal Crackers. There'll also be The Bride of Frankenstein, Buck Privates with Abbott and Costello, and a hybrid of the two called Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. If you wouldn't pay $15 for these moldy golden oldies, how about $5.95? Or $3.95? $2.95, maybe? "Fortunately," says MCA president Lew Wasserman, one of America's great showmen, "manufacturing costs are so low that we can test all sorts of prices and marketing techniques." He estimates that every television series is good for two video albums -- how about "'The Best of Lucy...Gleason...Dragnet'? Would you pay $2.95 for these?" Wasserman asks, sort of rhetorically.

When enough players are in use, original productions could be developed specifically for videodiscs. Even now, Wasserman says, "We're discussing making a group of films especially for discs, with supplementary exhibition in other media, such as theaters and TV." Eventually, he predicts, movies will be released to videodisc immediately after their theatrical premieres -- or even before. "Our research shows that Jaws didn't reach 50 per cent of its potential audience despite its being the most successful film in history."

Discs will be available from the dealers who sell the players, or by mail. A toll-free number in the DiscoVision catalogue connects callers with the Spencer Gift Company, an MCA subsidiary, which ships discs directly to them, charging their credit cards.

MCA DiscoVision's videodisc plant in Carson, Cal., will soon have a capacity of 4,000,000 records a year, and eventually can go up to 12,000,000. DiscoVision president John Findlater estimates that any disc must sell about 10,000 to break even.

Early purchasers of Magnavision players will be getting a bargain: kits of parts are being imported from Philips in Holland for an estimated $490 per player, and assembled by Magnavox in Tennessee. Add assembly, marketing and distribution costs and Magnavox could be taking a bath for as much as $300 per player. The break-even point isn't expected until 1981. There's evidence Magnavox plans to import parts for only 20,000 players before it starts building an American-made unit.

But MCA isn't putting all its jelly beans in Philips' pocket. It has established a jointly owned company (Universal Pioneer) with the Japanese hi-fi manufacturer Pioneer to make players in Japan. Pioneer's American operation says it will be selling home videodisc players late next year or early in 1980.

Closely watching the events in Atlanta will be other companies that are working on their own disc systems. RCA has had its SelectaVision disc under development since 1964, but so far hasn't made up its mind whether to bring it to market. That it's serious is indicated by its assignment of former NBC president Herbert Schlosser to the job of rounding up programming. RCA's compact player is designed to sell for less than $400 ("at a profit," adds an RCA spokesman), but as it stands today it doesn't have the flexibility of Phillips-MCA. It provides excellent pictures and sound but without the slow-motion, stop, reverse, and exact-frame-location features.

Another system that uses 10-minute discs has been marketed for three years in Europe by Telefunken with unspectacular results. LP videodiscs have been demonstrated by Matsushita, JVC and Sony of Japan, and Thomson-CSF of France. There's no interchangeability among any of these, and a hodgepodge of nonstandard and incompatible systems could result if they all came to market.

What's the difference between a videodisc player and a home videocassette recorder, or VCR? About the same as that between a phonograph and a tape recorder. Home VCRs have been on the U.S. market for three years. They cost more than disc players and are more versatile, since they can make their own programming from television broadcasts or home cameras. Prerecorded cassettes are available, but movies cost from $49.95 to more than $100 because of the inherently expensive nature of tape and of the process of making tape duplicates. Videodiscs, with far better picture and sound quality, can be stamped out in large quantities at a labor and material cost of about 40 cents each. To make it at all, the videodisc must succeed as a mass medium, with its players in millions of households, making necessary the development of reasonably priced programming in large quantities. VCRs can exist without such huge popularity -- they don't depend on availability of special programs.

Regardless of what happens in the home, the future of the videodisc seems assured in industry and education. Special versions with built-in minicomputers, or coupled to external computers, are flexible tools for programmed learning and data storage. MCA and its Japanese affiliate already have a dozen contracts with government and industry to develop specialized systems. It's understood that the White House is experimenting with the disc's tremendous storage capabilities and easy indexing for use in Presidential briefings -- one of the first regular videodisc viewers may be a citizen named Jimmy Carter.

The total amount invested by Philips, MCA, RCA, and others in videodisc development can only be guessed, but it undoubtedly exceeds a half-billion dollars. This could pay off as a fantastic new medium that revolutionizes our lives as television did a generation ago -- or it could lay a magnificent, full-color stereophonic egg. Broadcasters, movie makers, record companies, publishers, TV-set makers will be watching Atlanta for clues.

Article furnished by Matthew Anscher

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Updated: December 6, 1997
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